Polar Vortex! Hypothermia! The very name brings images of scary movies and even scarier temperature drops, but if you’re “of a certain age” in Maine, cold weather is nothing new to you!
If you’re like me, you remember when winter in Maine used to routinely involved sub-zero temperatures. But as we age, we’re less able to control our body temp, so we have to be even more thoughtful about winter exposure.
Hypothermia happens when the core body temperature is below 95 °F. It occurs if the body loses heat faster than it can be produced. Severe hypothermia can be fatal.
Older people are more at risk for hypothermia because we have a lower metabolic rate than before, and sometimes a decreased ability to detect temperature changes. Couple that with a higher rate of chronic diseases and more medications, and you can see why older folks are more susceptible to risk.
Ideally, your thermostat should be set around 68 °F. Help prevent hypothermia by wearing layers of clothing (which help trap air), long underwear, socks and a hat or cap. Feel free to wear your pretty hat inside! Keep a shawl handy (like the trendy pashminas) as an easy way to maintain your core temperature.
If you go outside, even in your car, dress like you may have to stay out for a bit. Add your layers, make sure you have hat and mittens, and warm boots. Take a scarf. Be mindful of the cold air as you breathe during exercise like shoveling or walking the dog. That way, if something happens, you’ll be prepared. The one time you “just run to the store” will be the time you go off the road and you’re stuck without warm clothing. Be prepared!
Drink your warm beverages, but be wary of alcohol. We don’t metabolize it as easily as when we were younger, and alcohol increases circulation to extremities, which causes body cooling. And of course one drink too many will affect your judgement and increase your risk.
If you’re caring for an older person, be aware that they might not feel the cold, and so fail to grab that sweater you thoughtfully laid out. Keep cozy items handy and remind people often to stay warm. Hopefully, you took the time in the fall to prepare the house for winter, so keeping the heat at a decent level is affordable. Many towns have LIHEAP funding or town funds to help people meet their heating needs. It’s much better to find out about funding BEFORE you run out of heat, for example. If you’re someone who worries about the heating bill, check with your town to see if you might qualify for heating assistance.
Beware the Umbles
The National Institute on Aging lists warning signs of hypothermia in older people as “umbles”: stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and grumbles. Looking for confusion or sleepiness, slowed slurred speech, shallow breathing, a weak pulse, change in behavior, lots of shivering/no shivering, stiffness in the arms or legs, poor control over body movement, or slow reactions.
If you suspect someone has hypothermia, take his or her temperature. At 96 °F or below, the person needs medical attention right away. If the house is cold, perhaps you can warm a small area like the bathroom while waiting. Or if safe, your warm car might be a good place to wait for medical attention to arrive. Warm drinks are fine, but no alcohol or anything with caffeine.